Three British firms and two individuals have been targeted by the American government and the OFT (Office of Fair Trading) for alleged deception by spamming thousands of people with offers of 'bogus' TLDs (top level domain names) such as .usa, .brit, .scot and .bet.

America's equivalent of the OFT, the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), has closed the firms' websites and frozen the assets of the firms to prevent them moving operations elsewhere.

The OFT is helping the FTC with its case and, although it cannot name the firms under investigation, the FTC's beef is with TLD Network Ltd, Quantum Management (GB) Ltd, TBS Industries Ltd and Thomas and Edward Harris Goolnik of Finchley Road in North London.

In an 'alert note' the OFT warns people buying TLDs, main web addresses, to check they are getting what they think they're paying for. The domains allegedly being sold by the companies named in the FTC complaint are not 'real' domains — instead they require a web browser plug-in to work.

"As they're based over here we're looking at whether this is misleading advertising, because we have power over that," said a spokesman for the OFT. The OFT wants anyone who's tried to buy a domain from the firms, or a domain like these from any firm, to get in contact.

"We have put this alert out in the interim — we're urging internet users to be alert to the fact that when they're buying domain names they should go to Icann in the first instance," said the OFT. Icann is the body responsible for governing internet addresses. "[Icann] can tell you if a TLD will be accessible on the world wide web as you and I know it."

The OFT says this is probably the first time a situation like this involving the internet has occurred and it marks a new kind of deception. If the OFT finds the firms have been misleading the public by selling these domains as if they are standard TLDs, it can bring a court injunction against them to change their sales pitch.

If you've been affected by any company regarding this issue, slip along to the ConsumerWatch forum here on the site or email us at [email protected]. Also make sure you tell the OFT by either emailing [email protected] or calling 08457 224 499.